Zip It Up!

Assessing the new AIDS scare

It's déjà vu all over again with the panic over this new, drug-resistant strain of quickly percolating AIDS that was detected in a New York man a few weeks ago (followed by another possible case in San Diego). The same AIDS pundits from the late '80s and '90s are being called upon to address all the familiar responsibility and prevention issues, and there's even a patient zero for the new millennium, though it's not been determined whether he's really a point man for a terrifying new strain or someone whose personal genetics made him susceptible to a hideous anomaly.

Even if the latter's the case, at least the media are covering this mess! I'd rather they be a little alarmist than totally speechless. In the early '80s, as I emptied half my Rolodex in horror, the press was shockingly silent about the creeping terror of "the gay cancer." It was an unspeakably dirty subject, especially since gays and druggies were potentially scary fringe characters, so ignorance begat terror, which begat a near reportorial blackout (whereas some presumed straight vets who died of Legionnaires' disease a few years earlier nabbed international coverage—not that I was jealous, mind you).

But having learned from that unbelievable fuckup, today's more seasoned media have just lifted their heads out of the sand again in order to stop the proverbial band from playing encores. Out gays have moved so far into the mainstream culture that the observers have had to notice this new possible threat to some of their favorite reality show stars and designers. Unfortunately, with the frothing support of gay leaders, they may be going beyond the realm of a little alarmist. Some commentators seem to be scapegoating the victims more than reaching out to them, with a frenzied approach reminiscent of last year's "blacks on the down low" mania.

In a New York Times article by Andrew Jacobs that detailed community leaders' reactions to the new strain (and that did present both sides of the controversy), historian Charles Kaiser blared, "Gay men do not have the right to spread a debilitating and often fatal disease." Well, er, I guess—but why only gay men? Yes, I know the new patient zero, like the old one, is gay, and I'm quite aware that the article centered on the surge in crystal-meth-assisted gay infections. But AIDS transmission isn't the exclusive domain of anyone (nor is crystal meth—straights have done it, and not just on Beverly Hills, 90210). In fact, when I criticized a God's Love We Deliver commercial a few years ago for taking pains to reveal that the client shown had children, a rep bitterly responded that gay people could have children, and besides, "the number of new AIDS cases in the heterosexual population is currently rising at a faster rate than in the homosexual population." That was before the crystal boom, but still, did gays go from being not quite visible in compassion-urging ads only to wind up as the exclusive face of the new recklessness?

And if gays are the devil, why not factor in the responsibility of the other person engaged in the sex act, not just the spreader (or "murderer," as the most extreme moralists would no doubt call him)? Even way back in '89, when Marc Christian won big bucks after claiming his late lover Rock Hudson had sex with him without disclosing his HIV status, I remember thinking, "And you had never heard of AIDS risks? And you had nothing to do with the sex acts?"

Willful ignorance—like President Reagan's all through the '80s—has always been the AIDS epidemic's best friend. No wonder power figures are anxious to attack the return of it head-on rather than putzing around in haunted confusion like last time. According to the same Times article, various gay and AIDS-prevention leaders "want to track down those who knowingly engage in risky behavior and try to stop them before they can infect others." They might even want to go so far as to penetrate certain websites and confront revelers at sex parties. That sounds admirable—if impractical—but where do you draw the line when it comes to preventing health risks? Do you throw rocks at a restaurant that serves burgers? Tackle a guy who gives his girlfriend a cigarette? Oh, I forgot, only gays are the culprits here. So should all gay bars be shuttered because people might hook up there and go home to have unsafe sex? Or can we just shake up and educate the denial-prone without sounding like our own oppressors?

These desperate measures are clearly motivated by concern, but they risk putting gay leaders in bed with conservatives (where I hope they'll use condoms; a lot of conservatives have secret double lives). Interestingly, some of the same gays who were horrified in '86 when William F. Buckley Jr. suggested that poz people should be tattooed are now advocating keeping track of them and their tricks. At least they can't be accused of complacency.

And this all comes just in time to fuel the real virulence going on—Bush's anti-gay-marriage stance, a cornerstone of his recent rah-rah freedom-and-democracy State of the Union address. "Look at the self-destructive gays chasing death all over again!" the right-wingers can cluck along with us. "They're not worthy of our sacred institution." Of course, as one pundit suggested, being denied rights like the ability to wed is exactly what fuels the kind of angst that drugs and quick sex are often used to self-medicate. But I doubt Bush would change his mind on the issue just so gays could be less promiscuous.

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